Magda Herbstreuter is celebrating a very special anniversary in March, not necessarily with a big party, but just by enjoying life. Magda Herbstreuter celebrates her anniversary in March as a breast cancer survivor.
She was part of a clinical trial at Marin General to test a new tissue expander that is a less painful option for breast reconstruction after a mastectomy.
Herbstreuter, a Mill Valley resident, was diagnosed with breast cancer one year ago, in March 2014. That was the start of a challenging road for Herbstreuter.
“I felt a lump in my right breast. I had a nagging suspicion, though I have no family history of breast cancer, but I got that inner voice telling me something was wrong,” Herbstreuter said. “I always hold on to hope, but they tell me that I have to prepare myself for the worst.”
Then came the news from her doctors.
“It hits you to the core,” Herbstreuter said. “Those are the hardest three words to hear in life, ‘You have cancer.’”
She underwent a double-mastectomy at Marin General Hospital. The operation, followed by chemotherapy, is an oft-prescribed treatment for breast cancer patients. But that doesn’t make the decision any easier.
“At first I didn’t know anything about cancer,” Herbstreuter said. “I didn’t know about the treatment options. You hear about chemotherapy and you wonder ‘Are you going to lose your hair?’ There are so many things you’re faced with.”
Herbstreuter met with patient navigator Allison Gause at Marin General’s Center for Integrative Health and Wellness, who told her not to stress about her job as a flight attendant. “This is your job now,” Gause told her. “The experience for patients generally is one of feeling very overwhelmed when they’re newly diagnosed,” Gause said. “There’s a feeling of being lost. … There’s some uncertainty about the next step, about what to do and who to see. There’s some complexity in the medical system and I try to navigate patients through that.”
Gause and her coworkers connect patients with various services, including yoga and exercise programs, support groups, massage therapy, nutrition counseling, financial assistance and more. The Center for Integrative Health and Wellness is hosting a survivorship conference titled “Taking charge of your health and wellness after cancer treatment” on April 25, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Marin Cancer Institute. The suggested donation is $20. Call the center at (415) 925-7620 to register..
Herbstreuter calls Gause “my little angel” in the book “I am with you, Love letters to cancer patients,” edited by Nancy Novack, Ph.D. Herbstreuter describes her experience with cancer in the book, a collection of thoughts, wishes and advice from various people who have battled cancer head on.
“I came to find that there is beauty at the core of the beast, and you will come out a stronger person than ever before. It’s almost like magic. I had to accept and open myself to the outpouring of love and support,” Herbstreuter wrote in her entry, “Hope.”
Herbstreuter spent the first few weeks after her diagnosis fighting for her life, fighting for her soul. She fought the cancer with everything she had: strength of spirit, determination and a sense of humor. She didn’t call the disease cancer or “the Big C,” or anything that would give it power over her. She called it “crab,” the astrological symbol for Cancer. She had her good days and her crabby days, but she never gave up and continues to survive and thrive.
Dr. Khashayar Mohebali, a reconstructive plastic surgeon based in Marin and Sonoma counties, said roughly one in eight women in the area suffer breast cancer, similar to national rates. He said 80 percent of the patients choose to have implants or to rebuild affected breast tissue with muscle or fat.
Women who elect to have breast reconstructive surgery can face a long and painful process with conventional, needle-based, saline tissue expanders. Just lifting their arms above their shoulders can be a struggle.
In the weeks before surgery, Herbstreuter heard about a new option that would allow her to take a more active role in her treatment and recovery. Marin General Hospital is one of 16 hospitals in North America participating in a clinical trial with the AeroForm tissue expander, developed by AirXpanders, a Palo Alto company. The system is awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
“Women want more control,” said Dr. Mohebali, who worked with Herbstreuter. “Women who are more independent are great candidates for this process. … The more options women have, the better. It’s exciting to be able to offer one more thing.”
The AeroForm tissue expander includes a small, handheld wireless controller that administers precise amounts of carbon dioxide into the device to accommodate a permanent breast implant.
“It took me about three weeks to think about [joining the clinical trial],” Herbstreuter said. “I had to ask myself, ‘Do I really want something in my body that’s just in a trial phase?’ … I saw the device and it looked very James Bond. I had no idea what a conventional implant looks like, but I was impressed with how easy this appeared. I saw the remote control and a structure with an oxygen chamber inside. The fact that it’s completely non-invasive to do the expansion and that I could do this myself was really impressive.”
The system allows the patient to control the gradual expansion of the device and takes the process out of the doctor’s office.
“The first time I did the stretching after surgery, I did it under [Dr. Mohebali’s] supervision at his office, but it’s designed so virtually nothing could go wrong,” Herbstreuter said. “It’s incredible. I used it while I was eating at a restaurant. I just excused myself to go to the restroom, turned on the remote control and a light indicator came on when it was ready. I could do it in one minute. It’s pretty incredible.”
Clinical trial results so far indicate the AeroForm system shortens the tissue expansion time from months to just weeks versus using a saline injection system. It is also expected to return women’s breasts to a natural shape and feel.
“Research shows women who have reconstructive surgery have better confidence in themselves and more overall happiness,” Dr. Mohebali said. “It doesn’t always change the chances of survival, but it makes them feel whole again. It gives them an opportunity to just move on.”
Herbstreuter is returning to her career and her life — as normal as it can be now — flying across the Atlantic Ocean to Asia and Europe just about every other week. It can be exhausting, but she knows she’s strong enough to carry on.
As Herbstreuter wrote, “Life continues with all its craziness and tenderness and awesomeness and humor and heartbreak and love. You can do it. I wrap you in a big, warm hug.”
By Derek Wilson
March 18, 2015